Believe it or not, there is actually a “Rice Cracker Kingdom” in Japan and it can be found in Niigata. "Senbei Okoku" is located in Nizaki near Niigata Airport.
Any “rice cracker kingdom” in Japan would not be complete with some cute cracker mascots. “Balin” and “Bolin” greet you right at the entrance of the “kingdom” and they will follow you wherever you look in the showroom and on the rice cracker packaging.
This is the place where you can learn all about the history and production of rice crackers, called senbei in Japanese, and then get hands on and roast some tasty crackers yourself.
You just place the crackers on a sort of metal net over an open fire and turn them occasionally with a long fork. Once you deem them ready for consumption, just dip them in a sauce of your choice and enjoy. These freshly roasted crackers still dripping with sauce are the best crackers you will ever taste.
Of course you can watch the professionals doing some cracker roasting but on a larger scale. It is fun to watch them churning out crackers and you wonder whether they can keep up with the high cracker demand in “the kingdom”. Two members of staff roast about 1,500 crackers a day each.
There are differnt sizes and flavors of senbei, a popular snack that is eaten when people have a cup of tea in Japan.
By the way, did you know that Niigata Prefecture is the top rice cracker producer in Japan? This is not surprising considering that Niigata Prefecture produces some of the best rice in Japan. If the rice is not used to make some of the finest sake (there are 96 sake brands in Niigata), then it goes into making nice senbei.
Some displays on the wall of the showroom and a TV documentary will tell you how rice crackers were produced in the old days and how it is done nowadays.
The real king of the Niigata rice crackers is a company, as you might have imagined by now. This is the showroom of Befco. You will recognise Befco senbei by the two mascots, "Balin" and "Bolin". Watch out for them the next time you buy a pack of rice crackers!
Their large showroom is full to the brim with bags full of rice crackers. The sheer variety of flavors, such as soy sauce, sugar, salt, cheese, salad or lemon, to name just a few, ensure there is something for every taste.
The entrance to the “kingdom” is free of charge but rice cracker roasting (including the crackers) costs Yen 400 per person, which is a small amount considering that you can eat the crackers that you roasted.
This is a fun place to come to with your friends or with your family when you are in Niigata City. Needless to say, this is the best place to stock up on rice crackers!